At a moment when the human relationship to the natural world is deeply in need of attention and rearticulation, Kellie Robertson has given us a book that closely studies representations of the ‘naturalness’ of human beings in late medieval French and English literature. Robertson seeks to restore to view a pre-modern version of the human as internal to the natural world, a concept that creates a terrain for wide-ranging debate about the desires, compulsions, limits, and freedoms of human beings. The Nature who speaks in Robertson’s book is thus not just the world of birds and trees, but that world as an expression of divine will, a ground for understanding human inclinations, and a boundary for power and knowledge, both human and divine. Nature Speaks traces the mutually informing histories of academic and literary discourses of natural philosophy, and along the way teaches us to look anew at some canonical works of late medieval literature, showing us that we should also see physics where we have tended to see psychology or ethics—and, indeed, that we should often see physics as underwriting medieval psychology and ethics. The first two chapters describe how nature was conceptualized and represented in late medieval writings. In Chapter 1, ‘Figuring Physis’, Robertson outlines three main metaphors for nature (the ladder, the book, the ax) and explains their conceptual flexibility and implications. Chapter 2 outlines broadly ‘Augustinian’ and ‘Aristotelian’ models of nature, as they inform late thirteenth-century scholastic debates. The vagaries of an intriguing text, De pomo sive de morte Aristotilis, are followed to gain a glimpse into moments in which Aristotelian natural knowledge is understood to be a reliable conduit to divine knowledge and even salvation, as well as moments in which that conduit is foreclosed. The chapter creates an informative foundation for the book as a whole, though there is an occasional tendency to argue for the uniqueness of natural philosophy as a controversial domain; this tendency can sometimes be misleading. It is not true, as Robertson states concerning the 1277 condemnations, that ‘the thirteenth-century censure of Aristotle takes issue only with the natural philosophical texts in the Aristotelian canon’ and that Aristotelian ethical doctrine was not at stake (p. 108). One need only point to the condemned proposition that ‘Happiness is to be had in this life and not in another’ to see that ideas contained in the Nicomachean Ethics and promulgated by Parisian ‘radical Aristotelians’ were similarly controversial. This wider terrain of dispute does nothing to diminish Robertson’s point that Aristotelian natural science posed a threat to orthodox views about the absolute power of God and the reach of human reason. In Chapter 3, Robertson turns to Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, persuasively finding there the vernacular treatment of key scholastic debates about necessity. In the Rose we see nature described and animated to explore topics such as ‘inclination, natural appetite, free will, nurture, and custom’ (p. 128). Robertson corrects our tendencies to read the poem’s addressing of sexual or moral disorder as a problem of flawed human desire and action alone, instead tying these themes to understandings of the human will as an exception to natural inclination. Jean’s Nature emerges here, strikingly, as a figure for utter human freedom from natural necessity, describing the human as exceptional among all creation. Ultimately, Robertson argues, the ‘exceptional exceptionalism’ of Nature represents the extreme form of the argument for human freedom and serves to point up the dangerousness of the voluntarism that was formulated as orthodox doctrine in the late thirteenth century. This chapter also begins an intriguing thread of discussion that continues throughout the book about art, nature, form, and teleology—a discussion that should be of interest to the many literary scholars considering recent turns to form and formalism. For Aristotle, nature contains within itself a drive towards a final form; a work of art is given form by another. Robertson argues that Jean de Meun’s Nature, by denying the natural inclinations of human beings, disrupts the distinction between art and nature, and further disrupts assumptions about how representation and allegory work. The next chapter, on Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pélerinage de vie humaine, finds a simultaneous formal and ethical critique of Jean’s Rose. Deguileville refuses the notion that the natural world and its mundane laws can provide any route to spiritual understanding—neither via mimesis nor via figurative language. Robertson describes an ‘apophasis of analogy’ (p. 215) by which Deguileville’s allegory proceeds, producing an allegory overtly disconnected from nature and the senses. By the time Chaucer writes his own allegorized Natures in the Parliament of Fowls and ‘Physician's Tale’, discussed in Chapter 5, the personification has been well established as an occasion for considering the question of whether humans are exceptional to or coextensive with the rest of the physical world. Robertson thus usefully opens out the Chaucerian conversation about God’s potentia absoluta beyond its usual location in the ‘Clerk’s Tale’, though she casts it here as a move beyond the Boethian context. In the Parliament, the formel’s refusal to choose a mate comes into focus as a problem more properly philosophical—and physical—than psychological. Chaucer is shown to experiment with the outcomes of an utter contingency of divine, natural, and human wills. The outcomes are ‘radical chastity’ (p. 255), familial violence, and an ultimately amoral world. Chapter 6 considers two poems attributed to John Lydgate, Reson and Sensuallyte (a partial translation of Les Eschéz d’Amours) and the Pilgrimage of the Life of Man (an adaptation of Deguileville’s Pélerinage). Robertson reads these works alongside fifteenth-century English science, arguing that speculation about nature moved from its primary site in natural philosophy into dream vision poetry. Yet the consideration of the natural world as providing any route to spiritual understanding seems finally to have been barred. Like other scholars, Robertson acknowledges but seeks to recuperate the ‘dullness’ of fifteenth-century poetry, arguing that we should understand the careful orthodoxy of the texts she considers as serious explorations of the relationship between the human and the natural world, if they nevertheless steer overtly clear of the kind of experimentation she finds in Jean de Meun and Chaucer. The epilogue to Nature Speaks—alongside the book as a whole—makes a persuasive case for the potential of a post-human turn to the premodern. The philosophy and literature of the medieval period were written before the break between humans and nature had become so thoroughly naturalized, and Robertson demonstrates that the anthropomorphizing of Nature could serve as place for critique and debate rather than a site of unthinking narcissism. The book is of clear value and interest to scholars of late medieval French and English literature, but should, with any justice, find audiences among non-medievalists interested in the long history of theorizing art and nature and in the post-human or ecological turns. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 13, 2017
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